In happier times, tourists flocked to Florida for a wide variety of vacation experiences: They might have lounged or surfed at beautiful beaches, wrestled a marlin on the open sea, snorkeled with tropical fish or manatees, or taken the kids to see Mickey.
Now the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccines have arrived, bringing with them hope that Florida can again become the tourist mecca it once was, but also something else: a new kind of travel called vaccine tourism. Here's what investors need to know.
What is vaccine tourism, and why Florida?
On December 23, Florida became one of the first states allowing those 65 and older to be vaccinated. And there's no residency requirement here, primarily so snowbirds can easily get the vaccines even if their residency is elsewhere. The unintended consequence has been an influx of those meeting the age requirement and seeking to be vaccinated ASAP coming into the state.
In a press conference at The Villages retirement complex last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to downplay vaccine tourism reports, saying, "We're not doing tourists." But the fact remains that proof of residency is still not a requirement for vaccination in Florida.
To be clear, Florida isn't the only state allowing the 65-and-up crowd to get the vaccines -- on paper anyway. The CDC now encourages vaccine access for everyone 65 and older, but in many states, the resources to make that happen just aren't there right now. For example, according to the L.A. Times, a lack of availability and the fact that many areas have yet to finish vaccinating frontline workers means there's still no clear timeline for when those vaccinations will be possible across California.
Convenience is an issue as well. After travelling from New York to Florida to be vaccinated, former Time Warner CEO and chairman Richard Parsons, 72, announced on CNBC that he had made the trip because getting it done here was so easy. He said: "I don't know how Florida got the march on everyone else, but, you go online. You make an appointment. You get an appointment."
There are even reports of international vaccine tourists, including some from Canada and Argentina, making the trek to Florida. And according to Newsweek, hundreds in India have signed up for the opportunity to combine "sightseeing and getting inoculated against the novel coronavirus before they would otherwise be able to in their home country" with vaccine tourism packages to the U.S., the U.K., and Russia. Where exactly in the U.S. these travelers would be getting vaccinated or when these trips would take place is not yet clear.
A potential business booster -- but don't break out the bubbly yet
As vaccine tourists make their way to the state, struggling short-term rental (STR) owners and their property managers may find themselves busier than they've been in quite a while. Some may even wonder if this boost is just what they need to stay afloat a little longer.
Most media reports on vaccine tourism seem focused on whether this trend is fair to residents, who may lose their place in line to these tourists. But as a Floridian, I'm finding those I'm speaking with are much more concerned about something else: the potential for a huge spike in the virus as a result of so much traffic into the state.
Following a virus surge in late March 2019, Gov. DeSantis imposed what was to be a two-week ban on STR bookings in Florida that wound up lasting nearly two months -- and longer in some areas. Many felt the ban was unfair because hotels remained open, but the logic seemed to be that those travelling during a pandemic were more likely to seek out a place to stay where they could feel safely tucked away from others.
If the sudden uptick in domestic and international visitors to the state brings about another surge in virus cases, the governor may see a repeat of that ban as one way to reduce the number of nonresidents pouring into the state.
The Millionacres bottom line
For now at least, vaccine tourism is strongly discouraged but legal. If more states are able to expand their own vaccine rollouts soon, and especially if they can make the process as efficient as it seems to be in Florida, concerns over this new trend will likely have been much ado about nothing.
Otherwise, STR investors may get to ride the vaccine tourism wave for however long it lasts but should prepare for the possibility of a gnarly wipeout. This piece suggesting alternative ways to monetize a vacation rental could help you do just that.